At first glance Alfred and Sylvia Lawrie were hardly the sort of people one would have called intimidating. Alfred was in his late 70s, tall and vague, one of those elderly men who stay long and skinny in the arms and legs, but put on weight in the middle. His beard was white and haphazard, like a bum’s whiskers. Sylvia, short and stout as a robin, had a sharp beak of a nose and the ruddy face of a drinker, but her blue eyes sparkled with impish good humor, and she had an infectious, braying laugh.
“We’ll have wine,” Alfred announced as their young guests, the Gerstlers, stood in the foyer. “I make my own wine,” Alfred said. “Everybody here makes wine. You will, too.”
“That would be nice,” Grace said. She briefly imagined herself picking grapes in her retirement, and turned away from the thought.
“So! You’re building a house here in Roaring River!” Sylvia cried as Malcolm and Grace settled into the velvet couch by the open French doors.
“Yes. A summer house,” Grace said. “My grandmother left me some money. We thought it would be good to get away, and then in the long run we’ll retire here. And while we’re still teaching… Well, the summers here are so much nicer than they are in Missouri.”
“Summers in Misery!” Alfred cried, and clutched his chest. “Don’t remind me!” He pretended to stagger as he went into the kitchen.
“So sticky!” Sylvia said. “Humidity thick as a blanket! And chiggers. And mosquitoes.” She waved away the memories. “Well, we’re here now. Here in paradise.” The living room was light and crowded with fine furniture, some of it Danish Modern, other pieces older, heavier. Books lined three walls, the shelves occasionally interrupted by framed etchings and lithographs. Grace and Malcolm glanced around the room nervously, as if about to be interviewed.
Alfred’s voice boomed from the other room. “Chardonnay,” he cried, “or Cabernet?”
“Oh, doesn’t matter,” Malcolm said. He immediately felt foolish. Of course it mattered.
Alfred’s head appeared in the doorway. “Chardonnay, or Cabernet?” he asked again.
“Chardonnay for me,” Grace said brightly.
“Cabernet, thanks,” said Malcolm. Alfred’s head disappeared.
“So tell me, how are things back at dear old Mayfield College?” Sylvia asked. Her face bunched up into a mischievous grin and she balled her pudgy fists in her lap as if waiting for some momentous piece of news. “Alfred’s been retired six years now. It seems like forever.”
“Oh, nothing ever changes at Mayfield,” Malcolm said. He saw Sylvia’s face fall. He cracked his knuckles and felt sweat beginning to form at his temples. Malcolm was shy, and disliked performance of any kind. He was not good on his feet, never had been. “Well, you heard about Merlin Dewey’s latest shenanigans, I imagine.”
“What did he do this time?” Sylvia asked, her eyes glittering.
“He took a vow of silence at the beginning of the fall semester. Kept it up all year long.”
“He only communicated with his students through e-mail,” Grace added, “plus a few scribbled notes on the blackboard.”
“Whatever for?” asked Sylvia. Her voice was breathless, poised on the edge of laughter.
“It was a protest against global warming,” Malcolm said. At that moment Alfred walked in with a tray loaded with trembling glasses of wine. He set the tray on a coffee table and passed out wineglasses with a shaky hand. “To the trustees of Mayfield College — and to their pension plan, God bless them,” he announced with a wink, and they all drank. Malcolm, who’d noticed something cloudy in his glass of Cabernet, took only a sip, but it actually tasted perfectly all right, absolutely drinkable.
Sylvia quickly repeated Malcolm’s anecdote about Merlin Dewey, sending Alfred into gales of laughter. He slapped his knee and cried, “Oh, that Merlin Dewey! He’s impossible!”
“And you probably heard about the Loretta Chamberlain mess,” said Malcolm.
“In psychology? No,” Alfred said. “What’s poor Loretta Chamberlain gone and done?”
“Not much. She just fell in love with a boy in her freshman class,” Malcolm announced.
“Loretta Chamberlain? She’s married! Two children!” cried Sylvia.
“Was. That’s over,” Grace said.
“Loretta Chamberlain is 50 years old. She ought to be ashamed of herself.”
“Fifty-five,” Malcolm said. He drank more of his wine. This was perfectly drinkable. And there was something undeniably delectable about passing along news of other people’s misfortune. He was ashamed of this, but not so ashamed that he wanted to stop. “Her husband’s a wreck. Her former husband, I mean. He’s taken up with a woman he met on the Internet. He talked to me about it at the gym one day.”
“Standards!” Alfred cried, and paced around the living room like a caged animal. “In my day, we threw people out. When I was chair of biology, we guarded the gate! And it wasn’t just biology! It was Mayfield, the whole place! Remember Easterbrook?” Alfred grinned at Sylvia with such vehemence that his teeth seemed ready to pop out of his mouth. His eyebrows rose dramatically. “This would have long before your time,” he said to Malcolm and Grace.
“Easterbrook,” said Sylvia, a hand at her chin, trying to remember. “Philosophy?”
“That’s the one. He thought he had tenure in the bag. Remember him?”
“Oh, yes. I do. He brought — who was it he brought to campus for a big lecture?”
“Bertram Hensley. Big-name British intellectual. Easterbrook thought that was such a coup — thought it going to cinch it for him — tenure, I mean. Bertram Hensley! Wore a vest that didn’t match his suit,” said Alfred. “Drank tea constantly, smoked a pipe, couldn’t stop talking for a moment. Had an odor about him. The English don’t shower very often.” Alfred rubbed his hands together as if warming them by a fire. “Easterbrook, that wretch, moved out of faculty housing, went out and bought a nice house, he was so sure of himself, he and his wife and their children, remember that? They bought the old Latham place on Professors’ Row!”
“Oh, yes. Such a lovely house. And then he didn’t get tenure?” Grace asked.
“Served him right. Bertram Hensley! A Socialist! A known philanderer!”
There was an awkward pause. Grace and Malcolm smiled but neither one of them could manage even the slightest shade of a laugh. They hadn’t heard of Easterbrook in philosophy, but suddenly they both felt as if they’d been in the room when he’d been sacked. One of their closest friends in political science, a morbidly obese woman named Michelle who walked with two canes, had been denied tenure a few years before. Everyone in the department was subdued at the meeting of tenured faculty as the votes were counted; in fact some of them were sniffling — but the truth was, Michelle’s teaching evaluations had been consistently subpar, her book had not found a publisher; Michelle hadn’t cut the mustard, and no one, not even Grace and Malcolm, who loved her, had voted to keep her on. Odd, that they’d been so fond of Michelle, because they actually didn’t like her worth beans. How did that work? Grace and Malcolm didn’t know.
The fact was, they had any number of friends who rubbed them the wrong way. But Michelle was the worst. They’d invited her to dinner at their house several times and she never ate a bite. She’d sit and look at the food on her plate like it was radioactive. They knew she probably waited until she got home and wolfed down two packages of Oreos and a tub of ice cream, but at their house, despite the fact that they were good cooks and slaved over the meals they served her, she wouldn’t even pick up a fork. The minute she left at the end of an evening, Grace and Malcolm would deconstruct her performance and catalogue her many lamentable failings. But still, she’d been their friend, and she’d been dumped by the department, and the memory of that was still painful. Now they both sat in the Lawries’ living room trying to coax a chuckle out of poor Easterbrook’s demise. The moment stretched out and enveloped them.
“I tell you what,” Sylvia said at last. “Let’s all go out for dinner. I didn’t cook anything today, and now it’s dinnertime and we have to eat something, don’t we? Our treat!”
They piled into the Lawries’ Land Rover and drove to Luciano’s, an Italian restaurant across town. It was a formal restaurant, with heavy silver and crystal goblets. Outside, the river tumbled in a noisy tumult of white water, a whooshing din, as if a train were rushing past their window. Malcolm and Grace swallowed deeply as they gazed at the menu’s prices. This was steep. Thirty-two dollars for veal marsala. Thirty-five dollars for branzino. Ten dollars just for a Caesar salad. And everything was à la carte. If you wanted spinach sautéed with garlic and olive oil to accompany your veal, that was an extra six dollars. Grilled polenta, another seven. For two recently tenured political science professors at Mayfield College in Ohio, this place was foreign territory. Simply on principle, neither one of them liked rich people at all, and their political leanings were decidedly left of center. Malcolm and Grace despised the lame-brain culture of materialism that seemed to dominate the national ethos, and spoke of this issue passionately, with great vigor, over dinner at least once a week; this restaurant, its inflated prices and its atmosphere of privilege, seemed to them to embody everything that was wrong with America, everything they wished they could change. But Grace, having inherited a sizable chunk of cash from her grandmother not long ago, realized that one had to be philosophical about things. Rich people were people, too. And after all, it was dinnertime, and she was hungry, and the Lawries had offered to pay. “I’ll have the branzino, the sautéed spinach, and a side of taglietelle con aglio e olio,” she said unhesitatingly when the waiter came to take their orders. She smiled at Malcolm, who was staring at her open-mouthed.
They continued drinking wine throughout the meal, a wildly expensive bottle of Brunello and one of straw-colored Vernaccia for the four of them, and by the time the elegantly appointed dessert cart came, two hours after they’d arrived, all four of them were collapsed in giggles. “Zuppa Inglese!” Alfred cried in a voice choked with mock outrage. He pointed a palsied finger at one of the selections on the cart. “Zuppa Inglese! It isn’t soup, and it isn’t English! So why do they call it Zuppa Inglese!” Their waiter, a handsome, deeply tanned young man with an enormous head of blue-black hair, smiled tightly and stood attentive, stoic, by the dessert cart.
Late that night, as busboys put chairs on tables around them and the restaurant’s staff hovered quietly in corners waiting for them to leave, Malcolm and Grace listened as Alfred and Sylvia spoke glowingly of their early years back at Mayfield College. “When we were a young married couple, new at Mayfield, new at everything, really, we were in a group,” he began.
“Sort of a club, really,” Sylvia said.
“Young couples like ourselves. The Kramers — Paul was in zoology, and the Plankenhorns, and Loren and Kathleen Rutledge, and Randy Sherbourne and his wife Elaine. We had a gift of sorts, that we passed around. Every time one of us —”
“Every time once of us moved to a new house!” Sylvia said. “We were always doing that! If there was a good house on the market, one of us would snap it up! So we all —”
“Whoever had just moved inherited the suit of armor as a gift,” Alfred said. “Oh, it made the rounds! We each had it at one point or another. Not a real suit of armor, just a heap of cheap tin. We dolled it up to beat the band. The Kramers picked it up in Mexico for a few pesos.”
“The things we did back then!” said Sylvia in a tone of wonder, as if they’d been describing a trek through the Himalayas.
“We’ve got it now. We keep it stowed away in the basement,” Alfred said. “Under lock and key. We hardly ever show it to anyone. We’re a couple of sentimental old coots. It would be like trotting out our baby pictures.” He made a big show of blowing his nose on his napkin.•
None of this, none of it at all, had been Malcolm’s idea. He’d been raised in Kansas City, and the summers in Ohio, sticky and fly-ridden and generally unpleasant as they were, simply reminded him of his childhood. Summer was something you suffered through while you were waiting for autumn. But when Grace’s grandmother left her this wad of dough, Grace hit upon the idea of a summer house in Idaho immediately. She’d been raised in a town not far from Roaring River, and felt the region tugging at her imagination: the mountains and evergreens, the vistas, the fresh dry air, the allure of the West. Malcolm had never even visited Idaho. As far as he knew, it was an odd-shaped state in the middle of nowhere, not on the way to anyplace he’d ever wanted to go. Grace’s parents had been dead for years, and she had no siblings, so there’d never been a reason, until now, to visit the place.
And it wasn’t just Idaho. It was the money involved. Malcolm had been raised in what might have been called straitened circumstances. His father Irving had been co-owner of Kansas City’s one and only Jewish delicatessen, the Brooklyn Deli on Troost Avenue. He detested his business partner, Solly Rabinowitz; they’d been at each other’s throats for years, in fact, ever since they both came home from the Korean War. The Brooklyn Deli should have been a thriving business, and was for many years. Before Malcolm and his sister Susan were born, when Kansas City’s tight-knit Jewish community lived in a prosperous area clustered within a mile or two of the delicatessen, the place was hopping. Most of Kansas City’s Jews were refugees from New York and other East Coast cities, and they flocked to the Brooklyn Deli to get food that brought them home again: bagels and lox, herring in sour cream, corned beef, pastrami, rugelach. And if Irving Gerstler hadn’t been dipping into the till to put bets on the ponies that ran at Podesta Park in North Kansas City, the business would have thrived.
But he couldn’t stop betting. And year after year, he couldn’t stop losing. He lost money that should have gone to the employees, to their families, money that should have gone to their suppliers; it wasn’t easy getting fresh smoked salmon and whitefish and sable shipped to Kansas City. Nothing was cheap, not the halvah, not the corned beef and pastrami, not even the waist-high pickle barrel that sat at the end of the refrigerated case. He lost so much that the Calabrese organization in the North End began dropping by the deli, ordering triple-decker sandwiches which they then threw on the floor. “Oh, waiter! I seem to have dropped my lunch!” They broke dishes. They turned over the pickle barrel, flooding the deli floor with brine. They threatened to break Irving’s kneecaps and cut off his thumbs unless he paid every penny he owed. And then they began calling the house.
These calls invariably came at night, starting first right around the dinner hour, and then gradually coming later and later, until finally they came in the middle of the night. Malcolm and his sister were under strict instructions not to answer the phone.
“What if it’s one of my friends?” Susan complained.
“Forget about it,” her father told her. His face was pale and haunted. He looked like one of the many Holocaust survivors who frequented the deli, though the nearest he’d come to a concentration camp was seeing newsreels about them at the movies. He’d been just a couple of years too young to serve in World War II, and when Korea came along, he’d spent the war in the cozy confines of the Quartermaster Corps, ensconced at Fort Dix, New Jersey, arranging for shipments of food to the troops overseas. Meanwhile his business partner, Solly Rabinowitz, was dodging bullets in Korea, losing a leg in a rocket attack during the battle of Chosin Reservoir. Rabinowitz, the gimpy bastard, reminded Gerstler of the difference between them as he clomped around the deli on his fake leg. “The hero of Fort Dix,” he’d mutter under his breath.
In stark contrast to Malcolm’s troubled upbringing, Grace had been raised in Benson, a placid little town in Idaho, 20 miles from Roaring River, and had lived a life of understated privilege; her father, Chip Breckenridge, owned a Chevrolet dealership, and drove a Corvette, a new one every year. Her mother was garrulous, beautiful, athletic (she won Idaho’s Over-50 Women’s Tennis Championship when she was 63). Together they were the king and queen of Benson, and Grace, whether she wanted to be or not, was their princess. Then suddenly, when Grace and Malcolm were about to complete their graduate studies together on the East Coast, just starting to think about marriage, both of Grace’s parents died of cancer within months of one another. They were both in their late 60s at the time, and had never been sick at all until they were dying. They’d sold the Chevy dealership by then and were living in a gracious retirement community in Arizona, and when the lawyers examined their holdings the surprising news was that they’d left almost nothing in the way of an estate. They’d spent it all, nearly every penny. Grace had to dig into her savings just to have them cremated.
When she heard this, Grace wondered if she’d ever known her parents at all. She married Malcolm a year later and they began their married life together with scraps they’d bought at Goodwill. She felt betrayed by her parents, these two gorgeous people who were now strangers to her, but she never spoke to Malcolm about them. What she said to Malcolm was, maybe it was better this way. “We’ll make our own life,” she told him, though all Malcolm could think of was that string of new Corvettes she’d told him about, a chorus line of convertibles gleaming in the sun. Of course some years later, when Grace’s grandmother died and left her a rather large inheritance, any thought of making their own life fluttered away happily in the breeze.
The morning after their dinner with the Lawries, Grace and Malcolm awoke early, before their builder and the workmen arrived. They were camped out in what would someday soon become the master bedroom of their summer house, though at present it didn’t seem very masterful. Its floor was plywood (the hardwood they’d ordered had not come in on time), and though the windows were installed, the trim hadn’t been installed, so there was no way to hang curtains, which meant that they were awakened by the sun every morning at 5:30. “Who was it who told us we should call the Lawries?” Malcolm asked. His eyes were still closed and his head was buried beneath a pillow. “Who gave us that sterling piece of advice?”
“Mrs. Patterson. Remember? From the alumni center,” Grace said. “When she heard we were building out here she told us to look them up.”
“Let’s kill her when we get back to Mayfield, okay?”
Grace lifted Malcolm’s pillow off his head and looked at his swollen, blotchy face. “It was pretty terrible, wasn’t it?” she said.
“I’m trying to remember the last time I met anyone I liked less,” Malcolm replied. He was talking softly, as if musing to himself. “Anybody. I can’t think of a single person. In my entire life. Zuppa Inglese, Zuppa Inglese,” he said. Now his voice was high and palsied, like Alfred Lawrie’s. “It’s not soup, and it’s not English. I’ve been mulling that over all night.”
Grace rolled over. “We don’t have to see them again. They don’t know our address.”
“They could find us. They could go house to house looking for us.”
“You’re being paranoid.”
For weeks now, ever since they’d driven west at the end of spring semester, he and Grace had been living in their unfinished house — the house Tim Schowalter had promised them he’d have completely finished by their arrival in May. He’d assured them of this in a series of phone calls and e-mails all through the winter and early spring. He’d sent them photos, too.
The first day they’d arrived at the building site and stood in shock, staring at the mess of their half-finished house, Tim led them around to the back of the property and showed them an old crowbar that the excavation crew had unearthed as they’d dug the hole for the house earlier that spring. The crowbar, he explained, must have been buried back when the land was occupied by Chinese laborers, as the railroad line was coming through Roaring River’s valley. “Isn’t this something?” asked Tim. “It’s probably a hundred years old. Feel the vibes in this thing.” He handed Malcolm the crowbar, which was extremely heavy, curved on both ends, massive and brutal. Malcolm hefted the crowbar, weighing it in his hand, and imagined, only for a moment, bringing it down on Tim’s thick skull.
According to Tim, none of the delays were his fault. In fact Tim didn’t believe in personal responsibility. He believed in a complex system of cosmic waves and vibrations that emanated from the seven sacred orifices of the earth, one of which, as it happened, was not far from Roaring River. He moved through life in a daze, as if he’d just been brained with a skillet. When Grace and Malcolm cornered him and insisted that he speak to them like a normal human being, Tim told them that the weather had blindsided him. It had snowed and rained during the winter and spring. For some reason this had taken him completely by surprise. “I guess you’ve got to go with the flow,” he said.
Meanwhile their architect, Roger, who supposedly had been supervising the project in their absence, was going through a protracted and painful divorce, and was unreachable much of the time. Occasionally he dropped by the work site and pretended to be outraged by Tim’s sloth. “This is unacceptable,” he’d mutter to no one in particular as he clambered back into his Jeep. Eventually he stopped coming by at all, having fled to South America with a woman he’d met at a support group for recent divorcées.
“We have to call them,” said Grace. “The Lawries. To thank them for last night. It would be rude not to.” She was already punching the numbers on her cell phone. “That dinner must have cost $250. They’d be hurt if we didn’t call to say thanks.”
“They’d be hurt,” Malcolm muttered. “Oh, no. We can’t have that.”
Grace glared at him. This was going to be brief. She had her line of patter all prepared. It had been a lovely evening, delicious dinner, it was so nice to know they’d have ready-made friends in Roaring River every summer, but they knew the Lawries were busy, and they were busy, too, helping out with the construction of their house and so on, the summer was flying by, soon they’d need to get themselves ready for the new school year, goodbye, ta-ta, goodbye.
But the phone call did not proceed as Grace had planned. When Sylvia answered the phone and heard Grace’s voice, she gushed, “Oh, my dear! You and Malcolm are — well, you’re a gift from heaven. We’re so glad to have you here for the summer, such wonderful young friends, for every summer from now on. Oh, what luck!”
“Oh, well… the same goes for us. You’re a gift from heaven, too,” said Grace. That sounded perfectly ridiculous. She wished she could have thought of another phrase, but she was hung over, barely able to get a sentence out. She should have waited until she’d had her coffee. She shut her eyes, but she could still feel Malcolm’s baleful stare.
“Come by the house this morning,” Sylvia said. “Alfred and I have a little proposition to put before you.”
“Well… we have some work to do at our place this morning,” Grace said, “and then some errands to run. But after that —”
“After lunch, then. One-thirty? It’s a date!”
After Grace hung up, Malcolm put a hand on her arm and in a grave voice announced, “I have to tell you in all seriousness that I may never speak to you again.”
That morning Grace and Malcolm spent two hours dipping cedar shingles, one by one, hundreds of them, it seemed, into a giant vat of brown oil-based stain. They carefully placed each stained shingle against a stone wall to dry, and soon there was a long line of them stretching the width of the property. “We’re probably saving a hundred dollars by doing this,” Malcolm told Grace. He doubted that was true, but it sounded good when he said it, so he said it again. “A hundred dollars! That would buy us a glass of wine and a piece of toast at Luciano’s!”
Grace stared at him, her arms covered in stain. The smell of this stuff was making her hangover worse. “Malcolm?” she said. “I thought you weren’t going to speak to me again.”
At 1:30 Grace and Malcolm arrived at the Lawries’ house. Alfred and Sylvia wasted no time in putting forth their proposition: They were about to leave for a two-week excursion to Scotland later that week. Their home here in Roaring River was going to be empty during their trip, and they were wondering if Malcolm and Grace might be willing to house-sit while they were gone. “It’s an easy house, really,” Sylvia said. “It’s not temperamental. You don’t have to babysit. Just be here when you can. We hate to leave it empty. It’s like a dog, it needs to be kept company.”
“Swim in the pool!” Alfred said. “Drink wine! Empty out the fridge! Carpe diem!”
“We’d love to,” Malcolm said. He hated himself for saying it, but there it was, the words were out of his lips and there was nothing he could do to stuff them back in. It would be like shoveling dirt into his mouth. Why had he said it? Why was he trying to please these people, people he didn’t even like? He’d never liked adults when he was a child, and now that he was 40, he still felt that adulthood was a kind of lingering, eventually fatal, disease. He’d grown up watching his father with horrid fascination. His father’s world was made up of shame and fear and grinding, dreary work, bills to pay, endless bills: mortgage, utilities, synagogue dues, house repairs. And phone calls, phone calls in the night. His mother and father weren’t wise. They were old. They trembled. They were afraid of everything. And all his parents’ friends were just as wretched. Every adult he’d ever known had seemed to him to be a fool, a dupe, a loser, saddled with responsibility, yoked to miserable work and always on the verge of collapse; his teachers had been cowards and martinets. So what was it about the Lawries that made him want to please them? Maybe it was that they didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. He wanted, more than anything, to be like them — to be fearless — because he’d spent his entire life afraid of his own shadow.
The Lawries’ flight was scheduled to leave very early in the morning, and they needed a ride to the regional airport, which was an hour away. If Malcolm and Grace could come stay at their house the night before their scheduled departure, all four of them could go to the airport, Malcolm and Grace could see them to their plane and that would be that. The next few days went by for Grace and Malcolm in a silent blur of shingle-staining marathons — my God, they thought, this house is going to take a lot of shingles — punctuated by trips to hardware stores and deep, dreamless sleep. The evening before the Lawries’ scheduled departure, Grace and Malcolm came to their house for dinner. “It’s our turn to treat you,” Malcolm had told them in an advance phone call, but since their kitchen was still almost completely inoperable, he and Grace showed up with a large box of food they’d procured at a fancy local delicatessen: a bottle of sturdy red wine, a free-range rotisserie chicken, a fresh-baked baguette, a mélange of grilled summer vegetables bathed in olive oil and rosemary, and a locally made peach crumble.
After dinner, as Grace and Malcolm cleaned the table, Sylvia said, “We get up early around here. We’re like a couple of birds. And tomorrow morning we’ll be up earlier than usual.” Sylvia led Grace and Malcolm upstairs to the guest room, which was a riot of chintz, with two twin beds flanking a shaker nightstand. “I hope you don’t mind the sleeping arrangements,” Sylvia said. She looked at them intently, as if imagining them having sex, or trying to have sex, in one of the twin beds.
“It’s lovely,” said Grace. She put her overnight bag down on one of the mattresses.
“Grace always hogs the sheets anyway,” Malcolm said. “This way I’ll have a sheet all to myself.” This was the wine talking. Grace didn’t hog the sheets. If anybody did any sheet-hogging in their marriage, he was the one doing it. He felt like a fool again. “I’m kidding, of course,” he added, then realized that that, too, sounded ridiculous.
The next morning Malcolm awoke early. He’d slept heavily but not restfully, and woke up feeling as if he’d been pulling a heavy engine uphill all night long. He’d dreamt of his father, on the lam from the Calabrese family’s goons, and in his dream he wasn’t himself, he was his father; he’d somehow inserted himself into the man’s miserable, pasty skin and was running as fast as he could, but the goons were everywhere, and for some reason he couldn’t run very fast at all; his shoes were enormous and seemed to be made of lead, and he kept stumbling over something, roots or stones, and he could he his pursuers growing closer. He realized in the middle of the dream that it was a total cliché, but that realization had no effect on the dream. It just went on and on. He awoke just as he could feel grasping hands at his neck, but it took a moment for this desperate dream to dissipate, and for several minutes he lay in bed panting. In the other bed, Grace slept like an infant, her mouth open, her face guileless, utterly unblemished. He showered in the bathroom down the hall, then went back to their room, got dressed and gingerly, trying hard to avoid squeaks in the floorboards, went downstairs to search for coffee. Sylvia was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. “You’re up!” she said.
“Showered and shaved,” Malcolm told her.
“I feel like a fool,” said Sylvia. Her face, usually so shrewd and mischievous, now seemed old, somehow both puffy and sagging at the same time. “Here we are, about to leave for a long trip to Scotland, and you’re staying at our house, you slept in our guest room last night, for heaven’s sake, right down the hall from us, under our own roof, and I don’t know the first thing about who you are. Could I see some identification? Just to put my mind at rest? We’re going to be so far away.” She gave out an embarrassed laugh and fingered the jewelry at her wrist. “I woke up in the night and said, ‘Who are these people? What do we really know about them?’”
Malcolm’s wallet was in the pocket of his windbreaker, which hung on the clothes tree in the entryway. He retrieved it with shaking hands and presented it to her. Sylvia held the wallet for a brief, startled moment and handed it back to him, so Malcolm opened it, withdrew his Mayfield College faculty identification card and gave it to her. “There you go,” he said.
She examined the card and handed it back. He gave her his Missouri driver’s license, which she held close to her face and returned to him. Neither of them said anything. Grimly, Malcolm pulled out his membership card to the Mayfield Health-Food Cooperative, his Mayfield public library card, his ACLU membership card, his organ donor authorization card. Sylvia examined each of these in turn and gave them back to Malcolm. “Am I me?” he asked.
“It appears that you are,” she said.
“I’m so glad.” He put his wallet into his pants pocket and managed a tight smile.
“Don’t be cross,” Sylvia said. “I just panicked.”
“Yes. I understand. Who are we, anyway? I ask myself that all the time.” Malcolm’s mind raced. It would, in fact, have been a cinch for the Lawries to do a background check on the two of them. They could have looked them up on Google. Gone to the Mayfield College website. Looked up their books on Amazon.com. But then maybe the Lawries didn’t use the Internet at all. In that case they’d have had no way of knowing a thing about Grace and Malcolm. Admittedly, they didn’t look like con artists, but then the best con artists didn’t look like con artists; they probably looked like college professors, didn’t they? And of course not so many years ago he and Grace weren’t college professors, they were adjuncts, living paycheck to paycheck, surviving on tuna casserole and stealing mayonnaise packets from Burger King. Even after they’d both received tenure, they’d lived modestly in an unprepossessing little bungalow. Until the unexpected windfall of Grace’s inheritance, there was no summer house under construction in an upscale resort town — in fact he could very clearly remember thinking at one point that he and Grace would probably never own a home at all. Their last stop before Mayfield College was a decaying neighborhood in Philadelphia, where they lived in a dimly-lit cockroach-infested studio apartment with yellow and green wallpaper and a refrigerator that reeked of mildew. The windows were painted shut and covered by iron bars.
If they’d met the Lawries then, Alfred and Sylvia wouldn’t have given them a drink of water from a garden hose, let alone invited them to stay at their house. He thought of his father, who’d spent decades hanging out with bookies and racetrack bums when he should have been stocking shelves and waiting on customers at the deli. There were deadbeats everywhere. He asked himself what he and Grace would do if some strange couple knocked on their door out of the blue, and he wasn’t at all sure how warm their welcome would be.
The drive to the airport went by without incident. They breakfasted at the airport coffee shop, a rustic room made up to look like a log cabin. Malcolm drank his juice and ate his eggs and toast without tasting any of it, and felt betrayed by Grace’s good humor, the way she wolfed her Denver omelette and hash browns. Sometimes he wondered if Grace had any sense.
Malcolm insisted on paying for breakfast. Grace nodded and put her hand on the table firmly, as if closing off discussion. “After all you’ve done for us, this is the very least we can do,” she said, and Malcolm repeated it word for word. What he really meant, though, was, We are real, we are who we say we are, we are honorable people, we are not imposters.
After a series of hugs and goodbyes, the Lawries lurched off toward their gate, laden with luggage. Grace and Malcolm watched from a distance as the elderly couple struggled their way through the security line. At the last minute Alfred turned back to them for one last hurrah.
“Have fun!” he called out. “Drink wine, you two! Behave yourselves, but not too much!”
Grace and Malcolm strolled through the airport, out into the clear blue sky and balmy breeze of a fresh day. They felt as if they’d been released from prison after many years. It wasn’t until they were safely in their car and driving back toward Roaring River that Malcolm told her what had happened that morning with Sylvia down at the foot of the stairs. He tried to make the story amusing, but Grace didn’t seem even slightly tickled by it. “You’re kidding,” she said. “You must be, you have to be, kidding.”
His hands tightened on the steering wheel. “I told you I didn’t like those people.”
“Well, I don’t like them, either.”
“I can’t stand them. I loathe them. I detest them. You like them more than I do.”
“Don’t start this, Malcolm.”
“You don’t think it had anything to do with the fact that I’m Jewish, do you?” he asked.
“Why would you think that? When did that come up? What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know. It was like some Gestapo agent was asking to see my papers.”
“Oh, please,” Grace said. “Okay, so it was a weird thing for her to do. Let it go.”
“You wouldn’t be talking like this if it had happened to you.”
“They’re just old. She’s nervous,” said Grace. “We’re strangers.”
“She’s nervous? She’s nervous? I’m the one who’s nervous here. I’ve been nervous ever since we met them.” He thought of poor Easterbrook in philosophy, who’d thought he had tenure in the bag. Malcolm was fully tenured now, guaranteed employment for life, but he suddenly felt it could all be taken away.
At the Lawries’ house, Malcolm and Grace snooped around that afternoon, opening drawers and reading financial statements that Alfred and Sylvia had carelessly left in untidy piles. It was nice to see that Mayfield’s pension plan was as generous as they’d been led to believe. The temperature climbed that afternoon, and at 6 in the evening it still hovered in the low 90s, so Grace and Malcolm put on their swimsuits and got into the pool. It felt delightful to be in a swimming pool that was theirs, all theirs, even if it wasn’t really theirs at all. As the sun settled over the mountains, Malcolm slipped the straps of Grace’s suit off her shoulders, and they made love, first tentatively and then ferociously, the wet slap of flesh on flesh in the pool driving them forward. This was the best sex they’d ever had in their lives.
The weeks of the Lawries’ trip to Scotland went by effortlessly for Grace and Malcolm. In the mornings they drove over to their own house and hung around the construction site, getting in the way of the workmen and peppering Tim Schowalter with questions about the progress of the project. In the afternoons they returned to the Lawries’ house and planned dinner, then went for a swim, which often as not ended with sex in the shallow end of the pool.
“Maybe we could build a pool of our own,” he said to Grace one night as they lay spooning on the Lawries’ pool deck under the stars, wrapped only in a terrycloth towel. He ran a hand down her belly and twirled his index finger lightly in the damp whorl of her navel, then continued south. Grace, as she melted into him, couldn’t speak, but only murmured a sigh and nodded into the crook of his shoulder.
On the day of the Lawries’ return from Scotland, Grace and Malcolm cleaned every visible surface of the house, restacked the personal papers they’d looked through, washed the sheets and pillow cases, replaced every scrap of food they’d eaten from the pantry and the refrigerator, mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges. When they left for the airport to pick up the Lawries, he made sure to carry every piece of identification he could find, including a pay stub from Mayfield College, a note from their department chair informing him of his salary increase for the next academic year, plus an article citing his research in a political science journal.
The drive back to Roaring River was silent and peaceful, because the minute Alfred and Sylvia were settled in the back seat of Grace and Malcolm’s car, they fell fast asleep. Alfred snored lustily, three-stage snores that began as a kind of snort and ended up more like a whine. As they pulled into the Lawries’ driveway, Grace turned around in the front passenger seat and gently nudged Sylvia’s knee. “We’re here,” she said. “Home sweet home.”
After they’d helped Alfred and Sylvia into the house with all their luggage, there was a brief round of hugs and back-slapping. Grace watched Sylvia’s eyes keenly scan the living room, looking for anything that might be out of place, but there was nothing awry, nothing that had not been put back in order.
“Call us soon,” said Sylvia.
And that was that. Grace and Malcolm drove back to their still-unfinished summer house, where mud was everywhere and progress had apparently slowed to a crawl during their sojourn at the Lawries.’ Roaring River’s various inspectors had not yet shown up. They were all away at an inspectors’ convention up in Coeur d’Alene, Tim told them.
That night Grace and Malcolm drank half a bottle of wine and walked to a spot on the property not far from their house where a pool might go. “Shut your eyes,” Malcolm told her, “and you’ll be able to see it.”
A week went by, then another. Soon there were no more shingles to stain, no more fixtures to order from catalogues. It had turned hot now, seriously hot, in the upper 90s every day, though not humid at all. Grace and Malcolm slept later these mornings, and awoke thinking wistfully of the Lawries’ pool. It had been lovely to be alone together in that bracing water. Sometimes Grace would glance over at Malcolm in the first light of dawn and she could see, just from the cast of his face, that he was thinking of this, remembering it. They spent more time in town, reading e-mail at a Wi-Fi café, sipping iced tea at a pub, or sitting in the dark at the movie theater watching matinees of summer blockbusters. The summer was slipping away. Grace and Malcolm turned their attention reluctantly to the courses they’d be teaching in the fall. The day the inspectors were finally due to arrive at their house, Grace called the political science department office at Mayfield, and ordered the textbooks they had decided to assign for the coming semester. Then she sat staring at her cell phone, frowning. She turned to Malcolm, who was thumbing through a catalogue of political science textbooks. “While we’re at it, should I call them?” she asked.
“The Lawries? Why would we do that?”
“They lent us their house for two weeks. They took us to dinner.”
“Wait a second. We cleaned that house top to bottom. You could have eaten dinner off their toilet by the time we were through with it.” Malcolm flung aside the textbook catalogue and began ticking items off on the fingers of one hand. “That pool deck was a mess before we cleaned it up. All those pine needles. We brought them a great dinner from that deli.”
“I think we ought to call them,” Grace said. Malcolm stared at her, disconsolate, and Grace punched the Lawries’ number. The phone rang and rang. Grace stood poised with the phone at her ear, expecting once again to hear Alfred’s tremulous voice finally come on the line. But this time there was no answer, and after waiting through a dozen rings or more, Grace finally hung up. “Not home,” she reported to Malcolm, who smiled at her beatifically.
“Damn,” he said. “Just when I was getting all excited.”
Their summer house took shape more rapidly now. Tim Schowalter barked orders with newfound authority. One morning a team of high school boys arrived, football players, by the looks of them, enormous necks and broad, sloping shoulders. They hung the sheet rock as if trying to break some sort of speed record. Suddenly Grace and Malcolm could see actual rooms where the day before there had only been open spaces separated by raw lumber.
The next two days were filled with taping and spackling and sanding. The men who came to do this work looked haunted, as if something terrible and irreparable had happened to them long ago. Dust filled every corner of the house and left everything, even their cigarettes and sandwiches, covered in white ash. Then these damaged souls departed, and a team of painters arrived, small, spattered and jaunty, like elves in white overalls, and by the end of the week they were gone, leaving behind silky, cream-colored walls and the pleasant reek of new enamel and latex.
One day just a week before they were due to drive back to Ohio for the beginning of the fall semester, Grace came home from the market with groceries, her face a mysterious mask. As she put away the food, she couldn’t resist a mischievous smile. “What?” Malcolm said.
“You’re hiding something. I know you, Grace. We’re married, we’ve been married for 11 years, I know when you’re hiding something, and you’re hiding something.”
Grace continued putting food away, then shut the refrigerator and turned to him. “I called the Lawries,” she said, and when she saw Malcolm’s face fall, she added, “I had to. We’re leaving in a week. How could we not call them?”
“I don’t know,” Malcolm said. “But I would have tried. I would have given it my best shot. I wouldn’t have gone ahead and called them without asking you first.”
“You are being an absolute baby about this.”
“You weren’t the one who got asked for identification!” he said. “You weren’t the one who had to prove who he was all of a sudden! Do you know what I’ve been doing? You’re not going to believe this! I’ve been quizzing myself on Mayfield trivia! I’ve been making lists of faculty we know there, buildings on campus. Best Italian restaurant in town: Cicero’s. Best burger: Dukey’s Bar and Grill, but tell them to put the Special Dukey’s Sauce on the side. Best grocery: It’s a toss-up, Schuster’s or Dincklemann’s. Best Chinese: aha! Trick question! There are no Chinese restaurants in Mayfield!”
“This is what you’ve been doing?” Grace asked, her eyes wide.
“While we were staining shingles, I was constructing exam questions for myself. Just in case it ever comes up.”
“Malcolm, I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, okay, here’s a start. Tell me we’re not going to have to see them again before we go back. Tell me that and I don’t care about the rest.”
Grace smiled awkwardly and looked at the kitchen counter, where she apparently saw something that needed to be sponged away. “We’re going over after dinner tonight,” she said. “Just for a drink. A drinky. One drinky.” She paused. “They have another proposition for us.”
She paused. “Look: We’re leaving in one week. We won’t see them again until next summer. Is it asking so much?” she demanded.
Alfred and Sylvia greeted them like old friends that night when Grace and Malcolm rang the doorbell. “You two kids!” Sylvia said. “You’ve been so busy!”
“You haven’t had time for us!” cried Alfred.
“We tried. We called,” Grace told them, “but you weren’t home.”
Alfred poured wine for them. It was as if he hadn’t heard a word that Grace had said. “There you go,” he said, handing out the glasses with a trembling hand. “I believe you’re a Cabernet man, are you not?” he asked Malcolm. “And you, my dear, you’re the Chardonnay type. I can tell. I know everything there is to know about you two.”
Grace and Malcolm exchanged a furtive glance. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Malcolm thought of their frolics in the pool while the Lawries were in Scotland. One of the neighbors might have seen them, filed a report with the police, sent a warning letter to the Lawries to be on the lookout for filth and smut going on in their own back yard. But no, that was impossible. Surely the fence would have hidden them from a neighbor’s view. The property was heavily shaded by fruit trees. And there were no adjacent houses on the uphill side of the property. Were there?
“I suppose you’re wondering what we wanted to talk to you about,” Alfred said.
“You’re our lovely new young friends,” said Sylvia. Her voice was husky with emotion, a tone that Grace and Malcolm had not heard from her before. “We’ve just enjoyed your company so much this summer,” said Sylvia. “And here you are with a new house. And so we were wondering, just for old times’ sake, if you might be interested in taking possession of our suit of armor. You remember the suit of armor we told you about. The one we passed around in our group when we were young. So we were wondering if you might like it. As a gift.”
“Now don’t say anything right away,” Alfred told them.
“Just think about it,” Sylvia said.
Now Grace and Malcolm glanced at each other again. The air in the room was cool, stirred by an overhead fan. Malcolm felt the breeze on his cheek.
“If it seems like a gift you might not enjoy, please just say so. Don’t worry for a moment about hurting our feelings,” Sylvia said. “We only thought of you because it’s so much a — a thing from our past. From when we were young. And it meant so much to us when we were your age and just starting out and —” She broke off at this point, and Grace and Malcolm both thought she might be close to tears.
“As you can see,” Alfred said, then stopped and swallowed before continuing. “As you can see, we’re just a couple of sentimental old fools.” Now he, too, appeared to be close to losing his composure.
“Oh, my God — well, then, of course we’ll take it,” Grace said in a choked voice. “We’d love it. We’d be honored to have it.”
“We certainly would,” Malcolm added. He felt as if he were reading from a script, a bad script, in fact, some Hollywood piece of crap that he and Grace would have walked out of in about five minutes — but the problem was, he meant it, sort of. Again he was amazed to realize that he wanted to please these people, this couple he couldn’t stand. It made no sense. And he couldn’t stop himself from adding, “We’re really touched that you’d want to pass it along to us.”
“We’ll drop it off tomorrow morning, then. I knew this was a good idea,” Alfred said. He seemed himself again, in control, magisterial, a member of the royal family who just happened to wear a bum’s whiskers. “I am old and good ideas don’t come to me the way they used to, but I still get one now and then,” he said. “We’ll drop it by tomorrow morning? How would that be?” He raised his glass, and they all drank a toast to friendship, then a toast to the suit of armor, and to youth and beauty, a summer in paradise, new houses, and old age, and to wine, to wine.•
Early the next morning Grace’s cell phone rang, and they leapt out of bed. “Hallo!” Alfred’s voice cried when Grace answered the phone. “Oh ho! Bet you’ll never guess how we got your cell phone number! Called up old Agnes Patterson, from the alumni center at Mayfield! She had it in her rolodex!”
“Good morning,” Grace managed to say.
“May we drop by with our little present? Is this a decent time?”
“Absolutely. We’d love that,” said Grace. She muttered directions to their house and hung up, saying brightly, “Can’t wait to see you!” even though she’d slept poorly, and would have loved to slide back into bed and snooze until Tim’s workmen arrived. While she’d answered the phone, Malcolm had already gone back to sleep, balled into a fetal position under the sheets with his eyes shut and his hands clenched. She shook him, a little harder than she needed to, actually. “Malcolm,” she announced. “Destiny awaits us.”
Grace and Malcolm had barely enough time to shower and dress before the Lawries drove a battered pick-up into the muddy confines of the construction area and honked their horn. “It wasn’t hard to find!” Alfred said as he and Sylvia got out of the truck. He slammed the driver’s side door and stood with his arms akimbo, beaming broadly at Grace and Malcolm.
“We followed your directions and here we are! Ducky! Just ducky! We could have been coming over here all summer if we’d known it was so easy to find! Ha! We could have been bothering you day and night!”
In the back of the pick-up a tarp covered a large, elongated lump. Alfred loosened a series of knots and whipped the tarp off, revealing something that might once have been described loosely as a suit of armor. It was at least 8 feet tall, but that included the moth-eaten feather-crowned derby hat that sat on its head and the worn-out rubber galoshes that engulfed its feet. The suit itself was made of cheap metal that had corroded over the years very nearly to the point of disintegration. Its visor was festooned with an oversized Groucho Marx mask, eyebrows and horn-rimmed glasses over a massive nose and moustache. At its waist it wore a pair of threadbare jockey shorts, and a sign that read, “I love my wife but oh, you kid!” hung around its neck by a string. Alfred clambered up into the back of the truck and hoisted the suit of armor upright. “It’s very light,” he said. “You’ll see. Hardly weighs a thing, really. Cheap Mexican tin.” He wrapped his arms around the chest of the thing and lifted it in a gingerly motion over the side panel of the truck. “Grab it!” he said. And Malcolm, not knowing what else to do, took hold of it and gently set it on the ground.
Sylvia and Grace watched this operation from a short distance. Sylvia put her knuckles in her mouth. “Oh, every time I see that silly old thing I think of our first house,” she said.
“You’re so sweet to give this to us,” said Grace. “We’re really touched.”
“Are you sure?” Sylvia asked. “I hope it’s not an imposition.”
“How could it be an imposition? It’s a gift,” Grace told her, and patted her on the arm.
“Well. If you’re sure.” Sylvia bit her lip. “I’m so glad,” she said. “I think it’s just the perfect touch for your lovely summer house. Just the perfect touch.”
She and Alfred stood stiffly by the truck After a moment they both waved to Grace and Malcolm, a tall, emphatic, synchronized wave, very grand, like two people on a desert island waving to a rescue plane. Then they got back in their truck quickly and said a tight-lipped goodbye, as if they might lose their composure if they stayed a minute longer. Grace and Malcolm watched the truck recede, lost in a cloud of dust. The suit of armor remained where Alfred and Malcolm had left it, standing guard in the parking area.
Malcolm and Grace stood very still for a long moment after the Lawries had departed. Then Malcolm turned to Grace. “What is this?” he said. “Is this a joke?”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Grace told him. “It has sentimental value to them.”
Malcolm stood next to the thing. It dwarfed him. “Where are we supposed to put it? We can’t leave it out here on the parking pad. The workmen can’t get in or out with this thing here.”
“So we’ll move it. We’ll put it away in a closet,” said Grace.
“I don’t want this thing in the house. It’s probably crawling with lice. Look at the hat, for God’s sake. You want it in one of our closets? It’s filthy.”
“We can sponge it off. We can spray it with insect repellent. It’ll be okay.”
“This isn’t a keepsake, Grace. I’m telling you, listen to me, I know what I’m talking about here. This isn’t a treasure. This is a sick joke. These people obviously hate our guts.”
“Malcolm. We’ll put it away in a closet. We won’t even have to look at it.”
Malcolm lifted the suit of armor and began awkwardly to walk it into the house. He stumbled at one point and had to catch himself to keep from falling flat on his face. Grace opened the downstairs door to the house and Malcolm managed to wedge himself and the suit of armor inside. He was sweating in earnest now, not because the suit of armor was heavy but because it was awkward. The smell of mold coming off it enveloped him. He tried to hold his breath but the exertion of moving the thing had left him winded. “Open the closet door, will you?” he said. “Let’s see if we can wedge this piece of shit in there.”
Grace opened the door and stood aside, and Malcolm gripped the suit of armor around the waist and began to push the thing into the downstairs closet.
“Watch it,” Grace warned him. “Don’t try to force it. You might break it.”
Another minute of struggle and Malcolm stepped back from the suit of armor, panting. It was wedged half inside the closet. It wasn’t going to fit in there, not even close. He looked at Grace and could see that her eyes were beginning to tear up. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
“What were we thinking?” asked Grace in a soft voice. “Why did we say yes?”
“Well, what were we supposed to say? No, we don’t want your gift? Thanks but no thanks? Keep your sentimental largesse to yourselves? I don’t think so. These people hate us. I don’t know why. Would you give this thing to someone you liked?” he asked her. “I mean it. Seriously. Is this the kind of thing you’d give a friend?”
Grace shook her head.
“Well, I’m not going to fuck around here,” Malcolm said. “I’ll be right back.” He went outside, grabbed the ancient crowbar Tim Schowalter had showed them, the one that had been unearthed by the excavation crew, and returned holding the massive tool like a scepter. He yanked the suit of armor out of the closet by its galoshes, set it on its side, and stood over it, the crowbar raised in one hand. “Stand back,” he told Grace. “This is going to get ugly.” He brought the crowbar down hard on the suit of armor’s mid-section, just above the waistband of its jockey shorts.
“Malcolm!” cried Grace. “What are you doing?”
“Making it fit,” he said, and slammed the crowbar into the suit of armor again. This blow seemed to free up something crucial in the waist of the thing, and suddenly Malcolm could see that a few more well-chosen punches might separate the top of the figure from its bottom half. He pounded at the suit of armor’s stomach again, then again and again, and finally the metal gave way, and with a grunt and a jerk, he tore the thing in half. Then he pushed the top half of the suit of armor into the closet and propped it up at the far corner, away from the door. He threw the legs in, too. The metal made a faint, reluctant crunching noise, like the sound of an auto accident two blocks away. “Our work here is done, Tonto,” he said to the crowbar with a grim smile.
Then the cell phone rang upstairs.
“You’d better answer that,” Grace said.
Malcolm pursed his lips. “It’s your phone!” he said. Then after a moment, as Grace stared at him silently, he rushed upstairs to their bedroom. “Hello!” he said into the phone.
“Malcolm. Dear,” Sylvia began. “When we drove off, we felt… awkward.” She paused. “We felt… Are you sure, are you absolutely sure that you and Grace really want that suit of armor? It’s such an odd gift. We know it is. So if you’d rather not be saddled with it —”
“Of course we want it! That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever — why would you think —?”
“We could come right back and pick it up and take it away if you don’t want it. We really could. We could be there in five minutes.”
“Oh, my God, no! Absolutely not!” Malcolm said. Was he screaming? He hoped he wasn’t screaming. He ran a hand roughly over his face. His hand felt raw, probably from the corroded surface of that goddamn crowbar. “We love that suit of armor,” he said. “We’d be heartbroken if you took it back. It’s the sweetest gift we’ve ever been given, I mean that, and we’d like to keep it as long as you’ll let us have it.”
“Well, all right then,” Sylvia said in a cautious tone. “If you’re sure.”
“We’re sure. We’re absolutely 100% certain.” His breathing was returning to normal now, he felt air going in and out of his lungs.
“Have a safe trip, Malcolm,” Sylvia said. “You’ll call us when you get back to Roaring River next summer. The minute you get to town. You have to promise. We’ll come over to your place and have drinks, and you can show us your brand new house.” She laughed, suddenly a flirt. “We’ll have drinkies.”
“Many,” he told her. “I promise. We’re counting the days already.”
“And if you change your minds about that silly old suit of armor…”
“Will you stop!” he cried in mock exasperation, and Sylvia laughed again.
“Alfred sends a big ducky,” she cooed. “You two have fun.” And she hung up.
Malcolm threw the cell phone onto mattress and collapsed next to it, huddled under the sheets. He heard Grace coming upstairs.
“What was that?” she asked. Malcolm pulled the sheet over his head, but he could feel her staring at him.
“Sylvia,” he said. “She wanted to come back and pick up the fucking suit of armor. They decided we probably didn’t really want it.”
“Oh my God.”
He peeked from beneath the sheet. “Don’t worry. I told her we love it. We have to have it. We’d die if they took it back.”
“And she believed you?” Grace stood at the foot of the mattress with her eyes shut and her hand on her forehead.
“I don’t know. I think so. She said we should call them next summer, first thing.”
“Oh, Christ. What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. We’ll get it fixed. We have nine months to work that out.”
“How are we going to get that thing back together?” Grace demanded. “Are they coming back over here? They’re not coming over here, are they?”
“You mean now? Right now? No. I don’t think so. No.”
“Are you sure?”
“How could I be sure about that, Grace?”
Grace turned her head toward the parking area of the construction site, sure she heard an engine. “Is that a car? Oh, shit. That’s a car, isn’t it?” But it was nothing, just a truck passing on the road above their house. They held their breath while its rumble faded to silence.
“Honey. Relax, will you?” Malcolm said. “Listen to me. I have good news for you. Just listen to me. Alfred and Sylvia are old. Here’s the good news. One day soon they’ll be dead.”
“Oh, do you really think so?” Grace asked, her eyes wide. “They seem very healthy.”
“It’s temporary, believe me,” he said. “Everything’s temporary.” And when Malcolm said “everything,” he meant everything. Yes, the Lawries would topple into their graves one day in the not-too-distant future; everything would fall to pieces, including the two of them, Malcolm and Grace, the bright and shining Gerstlers of Mayfield College — they were temporary, too; and their summer house, which wasn’t even completed yet, would one day disappear, leaving nothing behind to show that it ever existed except a crowbar, a scrap of wood, a rusted metal hinge.
He motioned to Grace slyly, inviting her back into bed, and she climbed in beside him. Then the phone rang. “I’m going to flush that thing down the toilet,” Malcolm said. Grace stirred, as if about to get up and answer it. It rang again. “Oh, no — no you don’t,” he said, and wrapped himself around her more securely.
“It could be one of our friends, honey,” said Grace.
“Yeah, right,” Malcolm said grimly. “One of our many friends.”
The phone continued ringing.
Gerald Shapiro won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish Fiction and the 2000 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His books include “From Hunger,” Little Men” and “Bad Jews,” which was adapted into the 2004 film “King of the Corner” by Peter Riegert. He was the Cather professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He died in 2011 at the age of 61. “A Summer in Paradise” is his final, unpublished short story.